Monday, March 8, 2010

One Last Run For No. 1: Can Purdue Sneak Back Onto the Top Line?

While writers, bloggers, and ESPN analysts sprinted to grab the shovels and throw dirt on the instantly rotting corpse that is a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue Boilermaker basketball team, they were already handing over the Boilers' expected No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed to anyone they could find.

Duke, Kansas State, Ohio State, and now even Purdue's New Year's Day pimp-smack victims, West Virginia, are getting love as potential No. 1 seeds.  However, each of those teams is not without their flaws in their own right, and are their bodies of work that much superior to Purdue's?  Let's examine, starting with the Boilers as a point of comparison.

Purdue: 26-4, RPI No. 11, 51st-ranked Strength of Schedule, 6-3 v. RPI Top 50
The Boilers' three Top 50 losses were to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, all of which they had either already beaten or proceeded to avenge later.  Just saying.

Duke: 26-5, RPI No. 2, 7th-ranked SoS, 8-4 v. RPI Top 50
Duke just dropped a game last Wednesday to a Maryland team that was merely .500 (7-7) against the RPI's Top 100. The Terps are playing like their shoes are on fire right now, and that probably works in Duke's favor. Barring a huge collapse in the ACC Tournament, Duke's probably got the No. 1 locked up.

On examining their losses, though, all things are pretty equal between the Devils and the Boilers. They both have a weak loss, Purdue to Northwestern and Duke to N.C. State.  Duke's five losses came to teams that were a combined 41-41 against the RPI's Top 100.  Purdue's four losses came to teams who were 28-27 against the Top 100.  Duke's own RPI and SoS are large advantages, but if it's boiled down to who each team played, there's very little difference.

If Wake Forest or Virginia Tech can pull a shocker in the ACC semifinal on Saturday, Duke could very well get knocked out of the top seed discussion for good.  Except for when Dickie (Dookie?) V's involved.  Coach K's boys could lose to St. Catherine's School for the Blind, Crippled, and Crazy, and Vitale would still spend the day talking about how big a disadvantage the Devils were at with seeing-eye dogs allowed on the court.

Kansas State: 24-6, No. 6 RPI, 5th-ranked SoS, 6-4 v. RPI Top 50
A phoned-in loss like the one to Iowa State on Saturday is exactly the type that sends a team's hopes of a No. 1 seed swirling immediately. As well it should. Iowa State was 3-16 against the RPI's Top 150 coming into that game. Compare that to Northwestern's 8-8 mark and tell me which is the worse loss.

In total, KSU's losses were a combined 35-38 against the Top 100.  And before anyone jumps on how much Iowa State's 3-13 brought that record down, Kansas's 13-3 evens that right out.

If Purdue was to lose the top line to any of these teams, I think K-State would be the one with which I would have had the least problem, at least before last Saturday.  The Wildcats are a great team, period.  I'll have to see a hellish regional in front of them before I remove them from Final Four consideration.

They had back-to-back 15-point wins in December over Xavier and UNLV, and took Kansas to overtime in their first meeting.  I'm not disputing their talent.

However, for all the talk about resumes and body of work that dominates February and March in college basketball, there's not a ton that differentiates K-State from Purdue, at least not to the point that the 'Cats are still getting top-seed buzz and Purdue is said to be fighting for No. 2-seed table scraps.

K-State's already lost once to Oklahoma State (a chic tourney sleeper, by the way), and that appears to be the matchup we can expect in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament this Thursday.  OSU's going to come in motivated.  Will KSU?

Ohio State: 24-7, No. 29 RPI, 66th-ranked SoS, 8-6 v. RPI Top 100
This is where the RPI junkies run and hide.  If you subscribe to the RPI as the end-all-be-all of college basketball power rankings, and you're seriously trying to advocate the Buckeyes as a No. 1 seed, you're a hypocrite.

The Buckeyes have a No. 1-seed player in Evan Turner, who should be the favorite for National Player of the Year. (Sorry, John Wall apologists, but Turner does both Wall's job AND Patrick Patterson's.  Deal with it.)

However, if you did the blind taste test that ESPN's so fond of during their games, and put up Purdue's resume next to Ohio State's with no names or injuries attached, I doubt many would claim OSU's as superior.

The Buckeyes' losses were solid, with opponents going 55-49 against the RPI Top 100...but that's buoyed heavily by the last two, West Virginia's 15-6 and Purdue's 12-3.  Leave out those two losses, and the Bucks' ledger drops to 28-40.

Okay, in fairness, two of the losses came without Evan Turner.  The opponents who beat a full-strength Buckeye team went 43-33 against the Top 100.  Still good.  But there's still that loss to a very iffy Minnesota team (4-7 against the Top 100, if you're wondering...worse than Northwestern).

By the time the Buckeyes get started in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday, it will have been 10 days since they last played a game.  Luckily for them, it'll be either Michigan or Iowa across the court from them to provide a nice tuneup.  Either Wisconsin or Illinois awaits in the semis, and we could even see a possible head-to-head showdown with the Boilers in the final.

If Ohio State dominates the tournament, fine.  Hand them a No. 1.  But don't insult everyone's intelligence by crying RPI all season and then ignoring that very large discrepancy just to cut a depleted team's resume down to size.

West Virginia: 24-6, No. 5 RPI, 2nd-ranked SoS, 15-6 v. RPI Top 100
I'd love to just say that 77-62 doesn't lie.  Except, in this case, it does.

I'm not nearly Homer Fanboy enough to claim that that game goes down exactly the same without Robbie Hummel in the lineup.

WVU has a great resume, and they don't have a bad loss.  At this point, their worst loss was to UConn.  Their six losses came to teams that were a combined 74-37 against the RPI Top 100.

Really, it's hard to object to their claim on a No. 1 except on aesthetic grounds.  The Mountaineers can out-athlete anyone, but a tournament run often comes down to size and/or shooting, and WVU doesn't have a ton of either.  It's always possible that DaSean Butler can shoot them right out of a game (see combined 8-for-42 against Notre Dame, Villanova, and UConn).

It's hard to see them having a huge problem with Louisville, Cincinnati, or Rutgers in the Big East quarters, but the semis may hold Pitt or Notre Dame, with their combined 2-1 record against the 'Neers.  A loss there should end the talk about WVU on the top line.  A win over either of those two, however, would probably lock up the top line for Bob Huggins' team, and deservedly so.

Purdue still owned them on New Year's Day, though.

I understand that all of this is totally moot if Purdue doesn't win the Big Ten Tournament.  And, to be honest, they'll have to rack major style points in doing so.  If they beat, say, Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois to win the thing, they'll get no credit for proving themselves against Ohio State or Michigan State or Wisconsin sans Hummel.

The sad part is, that's probably a fair judgment.  To be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a team has to prove they can go out and beat anyone at any time on anyone's court.  As presently constituted, Purdue hasn't done that.  Wins over Indiana and Penn State just won't cut it.

Every Purdue fan has to need Purdue to prove themselves against the big boys all over again.  If they do, however, and all these other stars fall into alignment, a No. 1 seed shouldn't be out of reach...even if it probably already is.

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